Cardrunners: Aggression rules

Cardrunners aggressionCardRunners pro Matthew Janda looks at his play from 2011 and explains why a more aggressive approach in 2014 will serve you well at the table

In this article I am going to take a look at how I played certain situations in 2011 and compare it to how I play them in 2014 where I believe I am a better poker player.

For the first situation, I want you to think about what you would do with all of the following hands when the cutoff opens and you are on the button: A-2s up to A-9s. Take a moment to think about it.

Now, there is of course no absolute answer here, but if I was in this situation I would three-bet all of these hands except for A-9s. The reason is that these hands play really well in three-bet pots and they usually have a decent chance of winning the hand at showdown even if called. When we three-bet these hands we are also less likely to be four-bet by our opponent because we hold one of the four Aces (a blocker), making it harder for our opponent to have a really strong hand like A-A or A-K.

Another reason why I think that three-betting these hands is better than calling is because I am not thrilled to have A-9s against the range of hands that the cutoff will be raising – he’ll often have me beat or be dominating me. Plus, if one of the blinds makes a squeeze raise versus us and we have to fold that is a horrible outcome!

Calling in position

The net result of this is that I don’t call in position that often. Here are the hands that I typically would call in position with: 99-55/AQo-AJo/K-Qo/AJs-A9s/KQs-KTs/QJs-QTs/JTs-J9s/T9s-T8s/9-8s/8-7s.

It’s fine to call a bit wider than this – and many will flat call with pocket Tens and Ace-Queen suited. I tend to three-bet and call four-bets a lot now, especially compared to other people, instead of calling more preflop.

I think you’ll be surprised by what hands I would just fold to a raise when I am on the button. It includes hands like: 7-6s, 6-5s, 5-4s, 44-22 and all other suited gap hands. I will fold these even though they look pretty! I’d prefer to three-bet bluff with something like K-7s to 7-6s because I think the ability to flop a high pair is more important than it being more connected.

Tough love

Despite me hopefully being a better player now than I was in 2011, I am actually uncomfortable more often in pots now than I ever was! This doesn’t make sense on the surface but the main reason why is because nowadays I am constantly playing hands in a way where I expect to lose, or playing them in ways where I know it’s likely I will have no idea ‘where I am at’ in the hand. In the past I would always take the safe option and play similarly to everyone else.

The clearest example of this is that I am constantly calling three-bets and four-bets out of position when I am getting a really good price to call. In these hands I will expect to lose the pot much of the time, but when I do win it will usually be a really big pot. Maybe I’ll call a three-bet with a hand like A-8s that can make a really strong hand such as a flush. I’ll probably lose the hand but if I do win it’ll be a massive pot so overall it makes it a profitable call.

You cannot avoid being lost with marginal hands out of position and, similarly, you cannot avoid having to play these hands either. A few years ago you could beat games like $100NL online and avoid getting in difficult situations completely. Not now. If you want to beat a stake like $100NL then you’ll have to get more comfortable playing in tough hands out of position.

My old poker mentor Jaime Kaplan was a very good player who would take aggressive lines and was completely comfortable with being lost and facing tough decisions. My gameplan revolved around always knowing what I was going to do on the turn or river and never being in an unusual, foreign situation. But he was the bigger winner.

Scary thoughts

It’s time to look at a bit of poker psychology. What feels more emotionally satisfying: to get to see a flop and miss, or to get pushed off your hand after three-betting and never seeing a flop at all, leaving you to ponder what could have been?

The answer is that getting pushed off your hand without seeing a flop just feels dirty. You won’t be able to stop thinking, ‘Did I just get bluffed off the best hand?’ Imagine that you did get bluffed off the better hand – the correct response might be to think I played my hand correctly, so did my opponent and I just so happened to be in a spot where I couldn’t call.

However, the natural instinct when you get bluffed off the best hand is to feel that you got owned! Flip the situation around and imagine you bluff your opponent – don’t you think you owned him rather than just seeing it as a situation where you both played well? It’s hard but you have to make sure you are not thinking this way. 

Another thing that you might think is, ‘What if I would have gotten really lucky on the flop? I might have just three-bet a hand I could have called with preflop and flopped the nuts with.’ Regret, like this, is a strong emotion that can lead you to make bad decisions in the future.

You can’t let regret change the way you want to play. You have to want to play hands the most profitable way more than you want to play hands so that you have no regrets.

No regrets

It may seem weird that I am talking about psychology so much but I think that feelings like regret and fear lead to people playing poker too passively. When you call and expect to lose, have to fold preflop (‘Did I get owned?!’), or suffer regret from what could have been, it will make you feel down. They all encourage you to play in a manner that is not the most profitable way!

Yet that’s what poker demands of us – to play as profitably as we can. I think the 2014 version of me would probably crush the 2011 version, even though I now get ‘lost’ way more in hands than I used to. I have actively avoided always making the most comfortable and easy decisions when playing, and it is paying off. An example of this might be to call a four-bet preflop with a weak hand because I am getting odds of better than 3/1, whereas before I would have either folded (most likely) or sometimes bluff-shoved.

This aggressive style that I am advocating is probably much closer to a Game Theory Optimal style – game theory is an advanced term for making your decision by taking into consideration what your opponent’s best strategy is too – than playing passively. It also makes it much harder for your opponents to play against you, which is a good thing.

Remember that the strategies you are playing in these hands will put you in difficult spots postflop and require you to play big pots, but the important thing is that it will also make your opponents do the same and they will be uncomfortable doing so.

Let’s get emotional

Even though I may play higher stakes than you I have the same emotions and feelings. There are a few things that I don’t like;

  • Variance and potentially
  • Losing money
  • Being lost in a hand
  • Bluffing off a stack
  • Having to fold a hand without seeing the flop because I have been re-raised

However, the major difference between us is that I have realised how inevitable it is to play aggressively. I have embraced the fact that whenever I sit down and play a session I’m potentially going to be playing for a lot of money in spots I’m
not entirely comfortable with. What’s changed is that in 2014 I care the most about playing in the most +EV style possible than I do about ‘playing it safe’.

Now it’s important to mention that by playing this style it’s easy to drop five buy-ins fast, so make sure you follow these important rules:

  1. Don’t play $10NL if you are unwilling to lose $50. It will happen at some point
  2. Don’t play $25NL if you are unwilling to lose $125. It will happen at some point
  3. Don’t play $50NL if you are unwilling to lose $250. It will happen at some point
  4. Don’t play $100NL if you are unwilling to lose $500. It will happen at some point
  5. Don’t play $200NL if you are unwilling to lose $1,000. It will happen at some point

The more aggressive you are the more your variance will be – but you also increase your potential to win big too. It will be a real challenge to get over this mental block. Because – let’s face it – we are dealing with a lot of money! In the real world $125 is a good sum of money but when I am playing poker I will not think twice about bluffing that amount. In the real world I wouldn’t even think about paying that much for a pair of shoes!

Your brain is wired to avoid risk but to be a top poker player you have to do the exact opposite. Aim to play as profitably as possible and, if you are prepared to be very aggressive, you should win big. Especially at the lower limits, most players (even regulars) will play very conservatively and you will be able to run over them.

This article is an extract from Classroom: 2014 vs 2011 Pre-flop by CardRunners pro Matthew Janda. To watch the full video, and more, go to today!

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